TV & Film

A Look at #OscarsSoWhite from an Asian Perspective

A lot of great conversation has been generated around April Reign’s #OscarsSoWhite hashtag these past few weeks. Let’s address one question that’s been brought up a number of times: why aren’t Asians talking about #OscarsSoWhite?

Article by guest blogger Clara Mae*

Well, Asians are. But, what people are likely looking for are prominent Asian actors speaking out in the same way Jada Pinkett Smith or Viola Davis have. Actors hold quite a bit of power in our society – they’re a means through which we can see ourselves represented to the rest of the world, and their status means their voices can amplify issues we care about. It’s understandable people seek their input.

Taiwanese-born American film director Ang Lee won the Oscar for Best Director for his 2012 film, "Life of Pi." Lee was the first Asian to win an Oscar in this category. He has won twice in this category for both "Brokeback Mountain" and "Life of Pi." / Photo courtesy of movie-hound.com
Taiwanese-born American film director Ang Lee won the Oscar for Best Director for his 2012 film, “Life of Pi.” Lee was the first Asian to win an Oscar in this category. He has won twice in this category for both “Brokeback Mountain” and “Life of Pi.” / Photo courtesy of movie-hound.com

Asians indeed have made some strides behind and in front of the camera, notably director Ang Lee and composer A.R. Rahman, and others like Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari have done a lot of work to create more roles for Asian actors. However, efforts to increase casting of Asian actors for Hollywood movies, much less Oscar-worthy ones, are moving at a glacial pace. So, perhaps the answer to the question is that the silence exists because there’s not much to talk about.

To elaborate: it’s no big secret that Hollywood has a poor track record with diversity, and that Asians are often pigeonholed into a certain type of role.

In an interview with BuzzFeed, actress Constance Wu says she auditioned for eight years for bit parts before landing a significant role on “Fresh Off the Boat.” She spoke on the type of roles she was typically given, saying “[The roles were] always the person of color supporting the white person’s story.”

Wu is not alone in her experiences. In an interview with the Daily Mail, Lucy Liu talks about how, because of her race, she’s never been seen as a viable rom-com lead. John Cho has affirmed that many of the roles open to Asians are only stereotypical side characters. Dante Basco has written about how the film business is that much more difficult if you’re Asian, as have Steven Yeun and Ki Hong Lee.  

And when Asian actors do manage to book an Oscar-worthy role, a rather depressing thing happens – they often don’t get recognized for their work. A notable difference, as most Best Picture nominees get a Best Actor nod as well.

The last Oscar movie to feature an Asian protagonist was 2014’s “Grand Budapest Hotel.” The film was nominated for nine Oscars, but acting was not one of them. Before that was Ang Lee’s 2012 “Life of Pi” with an astounding 11 nominations, but no acting nomination. (Remember, this was a movie almost entirely about an Indian boy and a CGI tiger stuck in a boat. The tiger won an Oscar for Best Achievement in Visual Effects. The boy who had to pretend a tiger was there the whole time did not.) And so on and so forth for 2008’s “Slumdog Millionaire, 2006’s “Letters from Iwo Jima”, 2005’s “Memoirs of a Geisha,” and 2000’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Dev Patel and Freida Pinto starred in the 2009 Best Picture winner, Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire." / Photo courtesy of indiafacts.org
Dev Patel and Freida Pinto starred in the 2009 Best Picture winner, Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire.” / Photo courtesy of indiafacts.org

A year after “Slumdog” won eight Oscars, The Telegraph caught up with the film’s lead actor, Dev Patel. Despite starring in a film dubbed a “stunning and deeply moving masterpiece” he was then unemployed, and only being offered “stereotypical parts like the goofy Indian sidekick.”

You can see why some Asian actors might just be ignoring the Oscars completely. The last time an Asian won an Oscar for acting was 31 years ago. More white women have won Oscars for Best Actress for playing an Asian character than Asian women have. And in a total of 87 years, you can count the number of Asians who have won an Oscar for acting on one hand.

Which begs the question: do the predominantly white Academy members have difficulty relating to a character and their struggles when that character happens to be Asian? Is there something so alienating about Asians to the point where, in a film that’s acknowledged in nearly every category as a cinematic masterpiece, they believe the Asian actors did little to contribute to its greatness?

Arden Cho tweet

And this is not to say that Asian actors have been completely silent. In the face of such dismal statistics, some have been speaking out but are simply not receiving as much attention as non-Asian actors protesting the film industry’s racism. Last year, while watching the Oscars that started the now infamous hashtag, Arden Cho jokingly pointed out that she spotted one Asian in the crowd and wasn’t sure how he’d snuck in. This year, Rahul Kohli tweeted that in support of the boycott he’d returned his tux – a tweet he later deleted and apologized for when people perceived he was mocking the boycott, rather than making the point that he hadn’t been invited to begin with. And in light of the more diverse SAG nominations, Yasmin al Massri  tweeted that the SAGs were a big “f you” to the Oscars.

Undoubtedly, a lot of positive change has come out of #OscarsSoWhite. But, the fact remains that in Hollywood, many doors still remain closed to Asian actors. Hollywood: check your biases. Then we’ll talk.

*“Clara Mae” is an alias name, as the blogger did not want to use his/her real name.

2 comments

  1. Asian- and African-Americans need to combine our voice to protest this, and to stop watching the Oscars entirely until they become more inclusive. Stop arguing with the defenders of their culture and just starve the Oscars of attention and money. Our money and our viewership is our power, wield it wisely.

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